Surviving Disasters is Often a Matter of Class

Many regions of the United States are prone to chronic flooding. It occurs over and over again in a cycle that never ends, and it often doesn’t even make the news; I’m sometimes surprised to talk to a friend in the Midwest who mentions flooding, for example, or to friends in the South who drop a mention that the streets are impassible unless you happen to have a boat. Flooding is so commonplace in these regions that the national media finds it in no way remarkable and doesn’t even bother to report on it.

Flooding has serious consequences for the people living through it, though. To live in a flood plain is to be aware that in any given year, you might need to evacuate because your home might be underwater. And that if you leave, you may not come back. Your home could be badly damaged in the flooding and you might not be able to replace it. If you’re a renter, like so many are, you may be permanently displaced and unable to make your way back home. This was seen very starkly after Katrina, when many people were unable to return to New Orleans and were forced to relocate to other regions of the country, often with other hazards like earthquakes and fires to look forward to.

Evacuation is no small thing. To evacuate you must be able to pack up the goods you need, including those things the government tells you are essential like a two week supply of medication, and food, and all your important paperwork. Your pets. Once you’re packed, you need a vehicle. For many people, these things are simply not possible, and they are forced to shelter in place. When those people need to be rescued after the flood, when they die in the flood, they are often framed as personally responsible. There’s much sneering about why they didn’t ‘just leave’ and how now ‘we’ have to come in and help them out; apparently helping our fellow human beings is less and less of a social obligation or responsibility.

Yet, ‘just leaving’ can be a surprisingly hard thing to do. For some people with disabilities, evacuation is simply not an option because they have no guarantee of support where they are going. If you are ventilator-dependent, for example, leaving your home can be challenging and when no shelter can say ‘yes, we have facilities for you,’ you may well be inclined to stay home with a generator. If you rely on expensive medications to stay alive, you may not have a two week supply. If you have pets and no animal-friendly shelter, you may not be able to leave because you do not want to abandon your animals.

And you may not have a car. Some people in the United States seem to think that car ownership is universal and that cars are always easy to access, when in fact, they are not. Not everyone has a driver’s license, for starters; some people grow up in areas where they are not needed and other people cannot afford the expenses associated with getting one. And not everyone can afford a car. Not just the car itself but the insurance, the maintenance, the constant expenses that go into keeping a car.

Cars for evacuations, too, need to meet some special requirements. An old beater is not going to cut it and could in fact be very dangerous, because you could end up stranded in an area where you might be at serious risk. If you are disabled, again, you need not just a car but an accessible van or truck, which is not an option for everyone. Disabled people who spend a lot of time at home may not have vehicles because they rely on public transit when they do need to get around, which means that when they get an evacuation order, they might not have access to a vehicle they can use and load with their gear. Supplies for evacuations can also take up a great deal of room, far more than fits in a car that may already be crowded with people, because you’re not going to leave your neighbour behind, are you?

Disaster preparedness planning in this country is in a woeful state of affairs and that’s especially obvious when we look at how planning in low income communities is accomplished, through a series of assumptions that are just not reasonable. Not everyone can prepare a kit for evacuations. Not everyone has a car or access to one. When this is realised only after the fact, it means a scramble to get buses, basic supply kits, and other necessary items together. That scramble can lose people, people may panic, people may refuse to cooperate because they have no real reason to. Why should you go along with the people telling you to leave your home when you have no assurance of being able to get back to it? When you have seen what has happened in the past?

So no, people can’t always ‘just leave’ in disasters, although as a society we should certainly be setting up mechanisms to make evacuation possible, and orderly, and safe for as many people as possible. Rather than treating people in difficult situations as simply obstinate or ridiculous or not capable of grasping the seriousness of the situation, maybe we should be treating them as entirely rational human beings who are often forced to make difficult, and sometimes impossible, decisions. And why don’t we start asking ourselves why people are trapped into making those decisions in the first place.

Related reading: Ailanthus Altissima on tornado preparedness.